Promoting, supporting and encouraging the study of the United States since 1955

British Association for American Studies


Issue 1, Spring 2001, article1


Issue 1, Spring 2001, article1

A Biographical Pursuit of ‘Peggy Guggenheim’

Lisa Rull
© Lisa Rull. All Rights Reserved

This article on American art collector and dealer, Marguerite—known as Peggy—Guggenheim (1898-1979) explores the inherent difficulties of researching her work and life within the constraints of the dominant models of art history and popular biography. Born in New York, she was a Jewish American heiress from one of the key German-speaking Swiss industrialist families of the nineteenth century. From the late 1930s onwards, she became an art collector and dealer supporting Surrealism and Abstract Expressionism, operating two commercial gallery spaces during the 1930s and 1940s: Guggenheim Jeune in London (1938-39) and Art of This Century in New York (1942-47). Consequently she is a crucial figure in tracking the shift of avant-garde cultural practices from Europe to the USA in the mid-twentieth century. Following a successful showing of her collection at the Venice Biennale in 1948, she moved to Venice where she continued to welcome the art world and later opened her collections to the public. However, to date there has been little serious consideration of her work and life. If people are familiar with her at all, it is through her autobiographical writings, which continue to be referenaced as the standard text on her life and opinions.

Guggenheim’s Out of This Century was first published in America in 1946, with virtually all the characters given pseudonyms (for example, Samuel Beckett—Oblomov). An edited but updated English edition reinserting real names was published in 1960, and a final combined and (again) updated edition was published just prior to Guggenheim’s death in 1979.[1] The autobiographies provide an emotionally raw portrayal of a woman whose flamboyant sexuality and exploitation of money shaped her experiences as an art patron. Guggenheim was wealthy, but prone to ‘penny-pinching’. She could be fickle and vengeful—especially in her relations with other women. Indeed, artist Lee Krasner frequently remarked that Guggenheim was “a real bitch, bitch, bitch.”[2] Above all Guggenheim presented herself as aggressively heterosexual and emotionally manipulative. She married twice: to Bohemian socialite, Laurence Vail, and briefly to the Surrealist painter, Max Ernst. Amongst those she claimed as her lovers were Samuel Beckett, Humphrey Jennings, E.L.T. Mesens, Roland Penrose, and Yves Tanguy. Additionally many subsequent biographical texts discussing her suggest an even more complex sexual identity, since Guggenheim frequently flirted and seduced her female and male acquaintances despite—or because—of their homosexual practices. Although noted for her apparently indefatigable personality, closer reading of the auto/biographical material on Guggenheim also reveals her emotional weaknesses. For example, when Ernst divorced Guggenheim, his son Jimmy remained a friend to her. Despite the tempestuous marriage Guggenheim constantly pleaded with Jimmy to confirm: “Max must have loved me at one time. Didn’t he?”[3]

From this synopsis, Guggenheim’s character appears far removed from the proto-feminist heroines who dominated early feminist scholarship in the field of auto/biographical studies.[4] The gossipy style of her autobiographies—which are curiously dissembling texts in themselves—dominates the tone of many discussions generated around Guggenheim’s life and work. The trivia is both fascinating and appalling for a feminist critic to try and deal with, and has proved a major stumbling block for both art historians and biographers writing about Guggenheim. Their difficulty foregrounds the necessity of acknowledging the complexities of human interactions across gender lines and raises two key issues for feminist researchers. One is the frequently masculine perspective that dominates the broader picture of historical and cultural circumstances in which Guggenheim operated. The pretence of gender neutrality—or its irrelevance—within traditional art historical scholarship continues to maintain a certain power within the dominating Modernist history of twentieth century culture. The other difficulty concerns our understanding of the fraught relationship between art and life, where banal, reductive, yet often extraordinary, forms of auto/biographical writing can prove particularly disastrous for women. Can the researcher escape from reading the work (in this case art and its patronage) as a prooftext of the life (biography)? Is it possible to acknowledge the seductiveness and value of the mostly untheorised material on her, whilst simultaneously critiquing the ideologies at work in constructing her character in this manner? Can we move towards analysing Guggenheim’s activities in cultural production as sites of struggle and negotiation with biography?

Aspects of such approaches have become of increasing concern for (feminist) studies on auto/biography and the whole concept of ‘writing a woman’s life.’[5] From early twentieth century debates about the ‘new biography’, through to specifically feminist analyses regarding how “women’s lives have rarely fit the model of the normative biographical hero-type”, the strategies and processes of auto/biography and biographers have begun to be unmasked and interrogated.[6] In doing so, historians have become more critical about how auto/biographies deal with the subjectivity of both the subject and the author. These issues have been considered by, amongst others, Shari Benstock, Julia Swindells, and Liz Stanley, as the methodology and uses in reading a life become more problematised by this engagement with theories of identity.[7] Feminists have also become more open to acknowledging the impact of ‘disappointment’ with the subjects of feminist research. Irit Rogoff’s essay, ‘Tiny Anguishes—Reflections on Nagging, Scholastic Embarrassment, and Feminist Art History’ (1988), provides a careful analysis of how the feminist scholar invests her subject with certain expectations.[8] When the subject is ‘revealed’ as less unique and innovative, and more “male-identified” or dependent, than we might prefer how does the analysis deal with this? How do we negotiate our understanding of a subject in the light of such material?

In pursuing an analysis of ‘Peggy Guggenheim’, I have sought to take account of such theoretical debates in order to find a way of ‘dealing’ with my subject. In this I found Toril Moi’s study Simone de Beauvoir: The Making of an Intellectual Woman (1994) a stimulating—if sometimes perversely awkward—inspiration.[9] In common with some of the aforementioned writers on auto/biographical approaches, Moi is concerned to make more visible the manner by which readers come to know/understand their subjects. Moi uses the wealth of auto/biographical material available on de Beauvoir to produce a critical analysis of ‘the making of’ her subject; one that is specifically “based on the assumption that there can be no methodological distinction between ‘life’ and ‘text’” (SB, 3-4, original emphasis). Drawing on Freud’s exploration of the relationship between psyche (person) and text (dream) in The Interpretation of Dreams (1900), Moi asserts that the person is only revealed “in the form of a text”. As such,

the intertextual network of fictional, philosophical, autobiographical and epistolary texts …[and] all the texts about her: letters, diaries, newspaper interviews and reviews, scholarly studies, films, biographies, personal recollections by friends and enemies—all contribute to the production of the network of images and ideas we recognize as ‘Simone de Beauvoir’ (SB 4).

Moi describes the possibility—and indeed necessity—when analysing how a (female) subject is constructed, of reading all the available texts “with and against each other” in order to avoid reducing “her achievements to mere effects of her personal circumstances” (SB 5). Of course this recognition of the danger of reading creative output or activities as “biographical evidence” has been of concern to self-reflexive biographers for some time.[10] However, Moi’s description of her methodology is particularly appealing since it prioritises analysis concerning how our understanding of a biographical subject is structured by the mass of critical and anecdotal material written about her/him. Echoing Moi’s study of de Beauvoir, I would suggest that ‘Peggy Guggenheim’ too is the product of “an extraordinarily complex effect of a whole network of different discourses or determinants” (SB 6).

Moi describes her work as a Foucauldian-inspired approach to reading a subject and, echoing Foucault’s approach to history, uses the term “personal genealogy” rather than ‘critical biography’ to describe her study (SB 7). This distinction perhaps reveals more about Moi’s own ambiguous relationship with biography than it does in identifying specific differences between these approaches. Many aspects that Moi identifies as integral to “personal genealogy” are considered standard in most serious biographical analyses. Moi, as a biographical commentator and frequent reviewer of biographical works for magazines such as The Times Literary Supplement, appears strangely horrified that her own investigation might be condemned by her reviewing peers as biography:

‘It sounds like a critical biography’, my friends said. As it had never occurred to me to write the story of de Beauvoir’s life, their objections seemed conclusive: another title would clearly have to be found. The offending title refused to go away… (SB 6, emphasis added).

Moi’s discomfort rests partly on contemporary debates about a conflict between biography and literary analysis. How does each form utilise the information and revelations of the other? On the one hand biography using literary material as evidence; on the other, literary researchers falling back upon references to the life. Despite Moi’s own problematic understanding of biography, her notion of “personal genealogy” is nevertheless quite appealing. For all that recent biographers have begun to acknowledge the “final, truthful ‘definitive’ account must always be something of a chimera,”[11] public expectations for the biographical format nevertheless demand something like the ‘telling of the life’ with a largely chronological impetus. (This trait of biography perhaps explains why the genre continues to attract novelists to write them.)[12] Moi’s denial of the possibility for a “final totalization of knowledge” of its subject provided through linear narrative offers a more explicit recognition that there is no “original identity” which can ultimately be disclosed through research and analysis. Instead, she proposes that the various “textual strands”—texts /work /life need to be read as “a complex network of signifying structures … haunted by the ghosts of the individual and social unconscious” (SB 8).

Whilst Moi’s criticism of the genre of biography is part of a wider debate beyond the scope of this article, her definition of “personal genealogy” certainly appears relevant with regard to Guggenheim, about whom limited contextualised analysis has been carried out within conventional biographical forms. By using a subject’s own writings and an array of popular and scholarly material to examine the broad social, cultural, educational, and political contexts that shaped her attitudes and experiences, perhaps we can confront the “disputed opinions and entrenched public myths” (SB 74) surrounding her. Although de Beauvoir’s position as a writer offers a somewhat different archive of written material to analyse, as contrasted with the activities of Guggenheim the collector, I would nevertheless suggest that elements from Moi’s study ring familiar with regard to Guggenheim. For example, Moi’s attention to issues of gender identifies how the (almost) consistent presence of an autobiographical voice in de Beauvoir’s writings is frequently used as a reason to dismiss her political and philosophical work and beliefs (SB 77-84). Instead many texts on de Beauvoir concentrate on her personality and private life, where

[t]he intended effect is to depoliticize her by presenting her political choices not as the outcome of careful reflection on the issues at stake, but as the inexplicable élans of an overemotional or even hysterical woman (SB 81).

According to Moi, this negative elision of the personal and the professional culminates in the work being reduced to autobiography, being reduced to an aspect of ‘femininity’. It is de Beauvoir’s status as a woman that ultimately results in this critical obsession with her “looks, character, private life or morality” (SB 78). I would argue similarities between this diminishing of de Beauvoir and the attitudes expressed towards Guggenheim’s work within the cultural market. The dismissal of Guggenheim as possessing “erratic” and instinctive taste[13] reliant upon her personal (sexual) relationships with artists reflects similar discourses and constructions of femininity.

In order to progress with a self-consciously theorised feminist analysis of Guggenheim’s contribution to twentieth century American and European culture, a summary of how art history and (popular) auto/biography have both failed and shaped the discourses on Guggenheim may prove helpful. Traditionally, art history has emphasised ‘quality’ as a symbolic representation of status, concentrating on objects (often imbued with a singular, timeless meaning) or on the romantic image of the inspired individual artist—the tortured genius.[14] The Canon of suitable subjects and the hegemonic power of its approach to methodology have remained resolutely intact despite the interventions of Other discourses.[15] Correspondingly, the trademark concerns of patronage—an emotionally detached commitment to aesthetics, connoisseurship of skill, and ‘good taste’—echo this Canonical approach to art history, which is often demonstrated through collecting ‘Old Masters’. However, patrons themselves remain largely the subjects of biography, rather than art history, since the latter concentrates more on the minutiae of the objects collected and the artists who produced them. Guggenheim provides a particularly problematic character for art history to consider. Firstly, the primary text on her work—namely the autobiography—presents a tangled web of business, social, and sexual relationships that seemingly inform her roles as patron, dealer, and collector. Secondly, her embrace of avant-garde European and American art, displayed and sold through salesroom galleries, challenged both male domination of the public economic arena and the definitions of ‘good taste’.

Much art historical research on Guggenheim has attempted to enforce art history’s traditional concerns and support of ‘good taste’. For example, the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation (SRGF) took over the Peggy Guggenheim Collection on her death in 1979, and has assiduously documented and promoted its content since then.[16] These texts largely concentrate on evaluating the art objects for their aesthetic and art-historical significance, providing only brief detail on their acquisition apart from occasional ‘literature references’ to the autobiographies.[17] There is limited analysis of how Guggenheim accumulated her collection, and even less on exploring her reasons why. In recent years some biographical material has shaped the promotion of the Guggenheim franchise. For example, rather than publishing a catalogue for the exhibition Peggy Guggenheim: A Celebration (1998), the SRGF produced a glossy illustrated volume dominated by a biographical essay by granddaughter, Karole P.B. Vail. With its numerous photographs and extracts from Guggenheim’s Venice guest-books, what the book celebrated appeared to be as much Guggenheim’s status as a celebrity—and her crowd of cultural celebrity friends and lovers—as her collection. (In the context of recent large-scale populist and branded exhibitions such as the Armani show by the Guggenheim Museums, this move towards exploiting celebrity and commercialism links to issues discussed later in this piece.)[18]

Some aspects of the patronage process have been accepted as part of art historical research. For example, there has been a growth of interest in work and evidence of ‘good taste’ of those formulating collections and cultivating professional relationships with artists. This area has seen considerable work done on the activities of those that advised and administrated Guggenheim’s work as a patron, such as her New York assistant, Howard Putzel.[19] Putzel undoubtedly deserved his due credit as a curator and collector working with Guggenheim, since it was largely thanks to his cultivation of contacts that many of the Abstract Expressionists gained their first successes at Art of This Century. However, Guggenheim’s canny accumulation of associates, including Putzel, Humphrey Jennings, Sir Roland Penrose, Sir Herbert Read, and Marcel Duchamp, has essentially been left unexamined, portraying her by implication as merely the financially-enabled passive receptacle for their ‘expert’ input.

Other studies have emphasised the philanthropic element of patronage, and although considerable feminist history has been produced in the wake of Ann Douglas’s groundbreaking The Feminization of American Culture (1977), few have extended her analysis to the modern era, or to the work of women operating in the public domain such as Guggenheim. For example, the papers from the 1995 inter-disciplinary symposium Cultural Leadership in America: Art Matronage and Patronage concentrate on the late nineteenth century up to World War I, whilst Kathleen D. McCarthy’s Women’s Culture finishes at 1930. Steven Watson’s Strange Bedfellows, provides a fascinating cultural history of many of the female figures woven into Guggenheim’s early life—for example, Katherine Dreier, Mina Loy, Mabel Dodge Luhan—but cuts off at around 1920. Shari Benstock’s Women of the Left Bank—Paris 1900-1940 does provide a valuable feminist attempt to write against the “hegemony of masculine heterosexual values that have for so long underwritten our definitions of Modernism”. However, her analysis makes only limited mention of Guggenheim’s participation and association with the American and European (women) writers, artists and philanthropists living in pre-World War II Europe. Moreover, the autobiography remains the virtually unchallenged primary source.[20] Ferris Olin’s 1998 thesis ‘Consuming Passions—women art collectors and cultural politics in the United States 1945-95’ begins as Guggenheim’s formal career as a dealer and patron was drawing to a close. Only Deidre Robson’s scholarly Prestige, Profit and Pleasure (1994) directly covers the art market of the 1940s and 1950s, but there is limited consideration of Guggenheim’s work within this study.[21]

Some journalistic work, feeding the popular interest after the art auction boom of the 1980s, does refer briefly to Guggenheim’s contribution to the art market. Peter Watson’s book From Manet to Manhattan—The Rise of the Modern Art Market (1992) is typical, but candidly acknowledges that the author has “pillaged, précised and paraphrased shamelessly” from several books for his text.[22] Correspondingly his tone of language discussing Guggenheim is simplistic and familiar, essentially summarising the autobiography and Weld biographical account.

As with other pseudo-art historical texts, this type of material privileges the biographical impulse. The style echoes the popular biographical accounts of patrons’ lives that captured the public imagination in the mid-twentieth century. Aline Saarinen’s The Proud Possessors (1958) is characteristic of these, and the opening sentence to her essay on Guggenheim—‘Appassionata of the Avant-Garde’ (note the title)—provides ample evidence of contemporary attitudes towards Guggenheim:

In 1937, Peggy Guggenheim, at the age of 39, found herself temporarily without a man. Having made a frantic career of men for the past twenty years, she could easily have acquired another, but she was momentarily surfeited.[23]

What is rather more concerning is how the provocative character of Guggenheim continues to stimulate such attention and caricatured portrayals. For example, Charlotte Gere and Marina Vaizey’s glossy ‘history’ of Great Women Collectors (1999) made Guggenheim a prominent part of their promotional campaign for the book, using their essay on her as part of a three-page illustrated article for the Weekend Guardian. Their language was dominated by phrases describing Guggenheim’s “addictive personality” and “her wildness and emotional extravagance.”[24] Like Saarinen more than forty years earlier, Gere and Vaizey continue to reflect uncritically and rely upon the tone of Guggenheim’s autobiographies, emphasising character and personal emotional life rather analysis of the work as patron.

Guggenheim family biographies have supported similarly-focused considerations of Peggy Guggenheim’s ‘scandalous’ life, and both Edwin P. Hoyt Jnr. in 1967 and John H. Davis in 1978 enthusiastically adopt the tone and anecdotes of Peggy Guggenheim’s autobiographies with little question.[25] As part of a genre of popular biography which puts elite families up for mass observation—their quirks, their morality, their financial success (and failure)—a central object of such texts is to underline how overwhelmingly different such groups are to the rest of society. Stephen Birmingham’s “Our Crowd”—The Great Jewish Families of New York (1967) and Kate Simon’s A Very Social History (1978) about the families of New York’s Fifth Avenue exemplify this approach within the format of the group biography.[26]

There have been relatively few individual studies of Peggy Guggenheim herself, and until recently the autobiography and Jacqueline Bograd Weld’s book, revealingly subtitled The Wayward Guggenheim (1986) were the standard works. Although written with Guggenheim’s permission and using interviews conducted by the author in the late 1970s, Weld’s book provides little more than a lively recounting of anecdotes, with patchy supporting evidence for oral testimony, and offers limited critical or contextual discussion. The two most recent books on Guggenheim have both been written by family members, and thus at least make more explicit their potential partiality regarding their chosen subject. Both the photograph-based Peggy Guggenheim—A Collector’s Album (1996), and the aforementioned Peggy Guggenheim: A Celebration (1998), continue the repetition of the familiar autobiographical tales and anecdotes from the Weld biography. (Anton Gill’s forthcoming biography on Peggy Guggenheim is due for publication by HarperCollins in October 2001. However, the author himself readily acknowledged that his text remains a “straightforward telling of a life-story” rather than a theoretically informed critical analysis concerned with the identity of ‘Peggy Guggenheim’.)[27]

Peggy Guggenheim nonetheless regularly appears in numerous biographies and memoirs, and it seems that no account of mid-twentieth century American and European culture can be considered ‘authentic’ or complete without some reference to Guggenheim. This reached its apotheosis in the 1998 Nat Tate biography. William Boyd’s (fictional) ‘rediscovered’ American artist cleverly pastiches of all the central clichés in modern artist biographies. Whilst the hoax itself was short-lived, virtually all the reviews commented on the inclusion of an obligatory affair with Peggy Guggenheim: the excesses of her life had transcended reality and passed into mythology.[28]


If we are ever to move beyond such mythologising of ‘Peggy Guggenheim’, the methodologies implicit to Moi’s “personal genealogy” may prove a useful starting point. By thoroughly contextualising and interrogating what shaped Guggenheim’s attitudes and behaviour, we may be able to analyse how herself and others have constructed her character in auto/biographical texts. As a demonstration of how our understanding of a subject might be expanded I now want to outline a preliminary analysis of a key document relating to Guggenheim.

The text concerned is a letter written to Guggenheim from Baroness Hilla Rebay (1890-1967). As Director of Solomon R. Guggenheim’s Museum of Non-Objective Art in New York, Rebay was both his advisor and personal assistant, and had overseen the development of his private collection into an important public museum. Solomon Guggenheim (1861-1949) was Peggy Guggenheim’s uncle, and no doubt his example played a role in her decision to set up the Guggenheim Jeune gallery in London in 1938. One of the first shows there was to feature work by the Expressionist artist Vassily Kandinsky. During his early years as a collector, Solomon Guggenheim had enthusiastically supported Kandinsky. However, in recent years Rebay had encouraged Guggenheim to support the work of a follower of Kandinsky—Rudolf Bauer.[29] Aware of her uncle’s latent interest, Peggy Guggenheim wrote offering to arrange the sale to him of an important early work by Kandinsky. Solomon initially wrote a friendly response, but the final task of replying was handed to Rebay. The letter has been reproduced and quoted—but never previously analysed—in virtually every book and article written on Peggy Guggenheim’s work as a dealer.

Dear Mrs. Guggenheim “jeune”
Your request to sell us a Kandinsky picture was given to me, to answer.
First of all we do not ever buy from any dealer, as long as great artists offer their work for sale themselves & secondly will be your gallery the last one for our foundation to use, if ever the need to get an historically important picture, should force us to use a sales gallery.
It is extremely distasteful at this moment, when the name of Guggenheim stands for an ideal in art, to see it used for commerce so as to give the wrong impression, as if this great philanthropic work was intended to be a useful boost to some small shop. Non-objective art, you will soon find out, does not come by the dozen, to make a shop of this art profitable. Commerce with real art cannot exist for that reason. You will soon find you are propagating mediocrity; if not trash. If you are interested in non-objective art you can well afford to buy it and start a collection. This way you can get into useful contact with artists, and you can leave a fine collection to your country if you know how to choose. If you don’t you will soon find yourself in trouble also in commerce.
Due to a foresight of an important man since many years collecting and protecting real art, through my work and experience, the name of Guggenheim became known for great art and it is very poor taste indeed to make use of it, of our work and fame, to cheapen it to a profit.
Yours very truly, H.R.
P.S. Now, our newest publication will not be sent to England for some time to come (N31).
(OTC, 170-171)

In her tone and language, Rebay’s eventual reply provides an acute illustration of the ideological conflict Peggy Guggenheim’s commercial activities generated amongst those (such as Rebay and Solomon Guggenheim) who saw themselves as members of the philanthropic cultural elite. The letter explicitly condemns Peggy Guggenheim’s decision to buy and sell art, but also reveals that Rebay’s attitude went beyond an accusation that Peggy Guggenheim lacked (appropriate) aesthetic taste. The letter also provides specific evidence of ambivalence about Jewish identity amongst each of the three parties concerned: Rebay, Peggy Guggenheim, and Solomon Guggenheim. Moreover, the debates it raises reflect the concerns of art history and biography and how they have structured discussion on Peggy Guggenheim: not only concerning her relationship to commerce, but also her inherent lack of seriousness and exploitation of ‘celebrity’. (By naming her gallery Guggenheim Jeune, she not only capitalised on her uncle’s fame but also implied a closer relationship than uncle and niece.[30] Rebay’s letter also implicitly condemns Guggenheim’s non-professional relationships with artists in praising the more formal procedure of establishing “useful contacts”).

Although Peggy Guggenheim desired financial self-sufficiency, her galleries only ever accumulated losses. This was in spite of her often demonstrated perverse attention to detail such as checking the money made from the 25 cents entrance fee to Art of This Century (TWG 292). In promoting minority tastes during the years she was working in London and New York, Guggenheim was rarely able to economically capitalise on her selections, and her basements were often filled with works she herself purchased to avoid disappointing her artists (TWG 161). When Guggenheim Jeune closed, it had a deficit of around £600 (1939 value), and despite all the critical attention Jackson Pollock acquired under her patronage, Guggenheim never sold one of his paintings for more than $1000.[31] Despite Rebay’s belief that Peggy Guggenheim had entered the art world with commercial profit in mind, Guggenheim eventually proved singularly unsuccessful to that end.

Solomon Guggenheim and Hilla Rebay approached their engagement with art in a completely different manner. Baroness Hildegard Anna Augusta Elisabeth Rebay von Ehrenwiesen, daughter of a Prussian military officer, had studied art from an early age. She subsequently became intimately connected with European avant-gardism through her relationship with Dadaist Hans Arp. It was Arp who introduced Rebay to the writings of German expressionist Vasily Kandinsky, with whom she shared philosophical beliefs on the spiritual aspects of art. In 1927 she moved to the USA, and building on the artistic reputation she had established in exhibiting with the expressionists at Der Sturm, Rebay was commissioned by Solomon R. Guggenheim to paint his portrait. The meeting established an intense and life-long working relationship, with Rebay encouraging the formerly conservative Solomon Guggenheim to acquire ‘non-objective’ modern artworks in large numbers. Previously, his small collection had been directed by his wife, Irene Rothschild and her conservatively traditional taste in Old Masters, and was easily accommodated within his suite at the Plaza Hotel, New York. As the course of the collection changed under Rebay’s tutelage, selections from the now Bauer-dominated collection required a more expansive home, and were thus transformed into the publicly edifying Museum of Non-Objective Art.[32]

In common with many of ‘our crowd’, this reflected the Guggenheims’ fostering of a “German-Jewish emphasis on Kultur” (TWG 111). Kultur expressed a “pride in[Germans] own achievements and their own being”, referring especially to “intellectual, artistic and religious facts….”[33] The idea was particularly central to German-Jewish life as they tended to be “more intensively involved in the cultivation of their Bildung[culturally identifying education] than were their Gentile counterparts.”[34] Certainly the Guggenheims were keenly involved in establishing their philanthropic and cultured credentials in the United States. For example, the John Simon Guggenheim Foundation set up in 1925 by Peggy Guggenheim’s uncle Simon, provided generous and non-prescriptive fellowships to “writers, economists, scientists[and] artists.”[35] Similarly, the family of Peggy Guggenheim’s mother—the Seligmans—keenly demonstrated how cultured they were through their support of classical education, opera, and library donations (TWG 111). However, like Solomon Guggenheim’s ventures into art collecting and patronage, what these activities highlighted were the family’s desire for acculturation—assimilation in American society.

Solomon Guggenheim’s enthusiastic adoption of Rebay’s ideas in the form of his collection of ‘non-objective art’, and most especially in his establishing a public venue for this work, thus made two key statements about the level of ‘culture’ he had attained. Firstly, this increasingly secular man probably found the alternative aesthetic spirituality of such art very appealing. Although T.J. Jackson Lears’ remarks were made regarding the antimodernist tendency of the period 1880-1920, his comments on artistic philanthropy have a certain resonance with regards to Solomon Guggenheim: “what many collectors sought … was a religious surrogate”, where art provided “spiritual comfort and therapeutic restoration.”[36] As Lawrence Levine has also discussed in Highbrow/Lowbrow—The Emergence of Cultural Hierarchy in America (1988), a “sacralization of culture” occurred during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Whereas previously museums had sought to educate the public, now both they and individual collectors—many of whom were responsible for founding public museums—sought instead to promote aesthetic elitism and the divine inspiration of art.[37] This “sacralization” was paradoxically a response to, but also a part of, society’s move towards secularisation as a constituent element within modernisation. Correspondingly, this increased concern for spirituality did not necessarily coincide with a greater commitment to formalised religions, especially amongst those seeking to establish themselves amongst the elite families in major cities such as New York. By the 1920s, public affirmations of Jewish faith including attendance at the high status Temple Emanu-El on the Upper East Side of Manhattan had largely dissipated amongst Solomon Guggenheim’s generation of ‘our crowd’. Solomon Guggenheim had also grown up through continual waves of nativist fears. These had been additionally fuelled by the “mass migration of co-religionists from Eastern European, whose coming seemed to threaten their hard-won respectability” in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Consequently wealthy (second generation) Jews often avoided displaying their Jewish identity too fervently and actively pursued behaviour and habits demonstrating their assimilation.[38]

The second statement Solomon Guggenheim made through his collecting of modern art was the portrayal of himself as someone a step ahead of cultural sensibility, as a pioneer in public taste. Of course, cultural patronage was already established as a means to evidence one’s munificence. The Gilded Age’s tendency to encourage the pursuit of “non-utilitarian activities”—such as collecting, setting up foundations, and instituting cultural venues—supported the desires of families such as the Guggenheims to advance their class status.[39]

Unlike her uncle, Peggy Guggenheim demonstrated no similar quasi-religious inclinations with her taste in avant-garde art, but in collecting Surrealism and Abstract Expressionism especially, she arguably challenged the boundaries of public taste in a much more threatening manner than her uncle and Rebay. For example, in supporting Surrealism, Peggy Guggenheim effectively endorsed the movement’s exploration and representation of the unconscious, fantasy, fetishism, and the world of dreams (psychoanalysis). And in promoting Communism or mocking the power of the (Catholic) church, Surrealism also sought to undermine the dominant power structures controlling social and artistic expression. Similarly, Abstract Expressionism brought American modern art to the international stage of cultural production and changed the possibilities in painting for subsequent generations of artists. By associating herself so closely with these radical movements, Peggy Guggenheim demonstrated no inclination to pursue the spiritual enlightenment her uncle and Rebay sought through their support of non-objective art. Peggy Guggenheim’s selections also indicated little comparative desire to lead the public taste or to inculcate a more broad-minded aesthetic sensitivity.

Nor did she probably feel as obliged explicitly to demonstrate, through her activities as a patron, her cultural advancement and distance from the family’s origins in mining. Born in 1898, some fifty years after her great-grandfather Simon Meyer Guggenheim (1792-1869) had arrived at Philadelphia[40], Peggy Guggenheim’s generation had all been born in America and had grown up as part of its increasingly wealthy (if not yet fully respected) elite. She had been brought up in—relatively secure—affluence, and actually described it as a “Gilt-edged Childhood” in her autobiography (OTC 1-15) (N49). Consequently, I would suggest that part of her willingness to challenge both conventional artistic tastes and those of her uncle derived from her more firmly established American identity.

Yet what the Rebay / Guggenheim letter most especially reveals is the importance of ‘semitic discourse’ to understanding the Jewish relationship to cultural philanthropy and commerce.[41] Brian Cheyette’s Constructions of ‘the Jew’ in English Literature and Society (1993), here offers crucial assistance in my analysis. Referring to Victorian English cultural critic, Matthew Arnold (1822-1888), particularly his Culture and Anarchy: An Essay in Political and Social Criticism (1869), Cheyette progresses the thesis that ‘the Jew’ represents a highly unstable and ambivalent identity within Arnoldian thought, wherein they “embod[y] simultaneously both ‘culture’ and anarchy’.”[42] Since Arnold was a considerable force in American cultural life during the later decades of the nineteenth century, this makes him a highly relevant point of reference for us to consider in applying Cheyette’s ideas to understanding the Rebay letter.[43]

According to Cheyette, Arnold believed that “fixed racial differences between ‘Aryans’ and ‘Semites’” could be “transcended by his[Arnold’s] ideal of culture”. That is, by becoming an “acculturated ‘Jew’”, Jews could move away from “unaesthetic, worldly Hebraism.”[44] Despite this apparently universalising discourse, wherein the Jew adopts the benchmarks of Hellenic culture as his own, Cheyette nevertheless identified within Arnoldian thought a dual existence for ‘the Jew’: both “acculturated”—assimilated—and “racialised”. Identifiable with the modernising middle-class impulses Arnold despised, this “racialised” Jew embodied the commercialism of “bourgeois individualism.”[45]

Returning to the Rebay letter with this in mind, it appears clear that Rebay’s articulation of the ideological conflict between art and commerce was informed by this historically rooted ambivalence towards ‘the Jew’. In his philanthropy, Solomon Guggenheim—as guided by Rebay—embodied the traits of the “acculturated Jew”. By contrast, Peggy Guggenheim’s entry into the art market not only reminded Rebay of the mercantile origins of the Guggenheim family (as peddlers and subsequently mine-owners), but also reconfirmed their inherent Hebraic racial identity, in contrast to the identity Rebay worked to present—namely a cultured philanthropic assimilated self. This appears to link with John Murray Cuddihy’s arguments in The Ordeal of Civility (1974) where he quotes and discusses Karl Marx’s comments on the Anglo-Jewish economist David Ricardo (1772-1823). Cuddihy asks whether those wishing to affirm the power of the ‘acculturated Jew’ would be annoyed to “see economic relations exposed in all their crudity[read ‘Jewishness’], to see the mysteries of the bourgeoisie unmasked?”[46] Is this what Rebay feared Peggy Guggenheim was doing by offering to sell the Kandinsky to Solomon Guggenheim? (And is it not ironic that in recent years the development of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum franchise has been publicly condemned for commercialising the museum experience—pace the Armani exhibition?)

What the Rebay letter to Peggy Guggenheim ultimately marks is a point of implosion regarding identity—community, family, individual—within the Guggenheim ‘family’. (Given the intimate working relationship Rebay had with Solomon Guggenheim, it may be taken that she was effectively a ‘family member’ during Solomon’s lifetime). In offering to negotiate the Kandinsky sale to her uncle—and no doubt take a dealer’s commission—Peggy Guggenheim explicitly challenged Rebay and Solomon Guggenheim’s conception of ‘the Jew’ as acculturated ‘culture-bearer’. By analysing the letter within its historical context, such issues previously unconsidered by art historians and biographers of Peggy Guggenheim have thus been brought to the fore. They indicate both the possibilities for more theorised approaches to cultural biography, and also identify the deficiencies of more traditional approaches in biographically pursuing ‘Peggy Guggenheim’.

University of Nottingham


[1] Peggy Guggenheim, Out of This Century: The Informal Memories of Peggy Guggenheim (New York: Dial Press, 1946); Confessions of An Art Addict (London: Andre Deutsch, 1960); Out of This Century: Confessions of An Art Addict (London: Andre Deutch, 1979). Unless otherwise specified all subsequent references will be to the 1979 edition and hereafter abbreviated in text as OTC.

[2] Jacqueline Bograd Weld, Peggy: The Wayward Guggenheim (London: The Bodley Head, 1986), 401. The remark concerned Guggenheim’s lawsuit against Krasner for damages over the estate’s disposal of works by Jackson Pollock allegedly from 1946-48 (the period when his output was contracted to Guggenheim). Hereafter abbreviated in text as TWG.

[3] Jimmy Ernst, A Not-So-Still-Life (New York: St Martin’s / Marek, 1984), 238.

[4] Sidonie Smith and Julia Watson (editors), Women, Autobiography, Theory: A Reader (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1998). Their introduction succinctly describes the development of auto/biographical studies from heroic retrieval through theories of subjectivity (3-52).

[5] Carolyn G. Heilbrun, Writing a Woman’s Life (London: The Women’s Press, 1989)

[6] Regarding ‘new biography’ see for example Laura Marcus, Auto/biographical discourses: theory, criticism, practice (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1994), 90-134; regarding “normative biographical hero-type” see Lois Rudnick ‘The Male-Identified Woman and Other Anxieties: The Life of Mabel Dodge Luhan’ in Sara Alpern, Joyce Antler et al (editors), The Challenge of Feminist Biography: Writing the Lives of Modern American Women (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1992), 116-138, 118.

[7] Shari Benstock (editor), The Private Self: Theory and Practice of Women’s Autobiographical Writings (London: Routledge, 1988); Julia Swindells (editor), Uses of Autobiography (London: Taylor and Francis, 1995); Stanley, Liz, The auto/biographical I: the theory and practice of feminist auto/biography (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1992).

[8] Irit Rogoff, ‘Tiny Anguishes—Reflections on Nagging, Scholastic Embarrassment, and Feminist Art History’ in Griselda Pollock (ed.), Genders (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1988) 4:3, 38-65.

[9] Toril Moi, Simone de Beauvoir: The Making of an Intellectual Woman (Oxford: Blackwell, 1994). Hereafter abbreviated in text as SB.

[10] John Haffenden, ‘Life Over Literature; or, Whatever Happened to Critical Biography?’ in Warwick Gould and Tomas F. Staley (editors), Writing the Lives of Writers (Basingstoke: Macmillan Press in association with Centre for English Studies and School of Advance Study, University of London, 1998), 19-35, 33

[11] Richard Holmes ‘Biography: Inventing the Truth’, in John Batchelor, The Art of Literary Biography (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1995), 15-25, 19

[12] Anton Gill, author of a forthcoming biography on Guggenheim, although academically perhaps most familiar for his work on mid-twentieth century German history, has also produced a number of crime thrillers set in ancient Egypt.

[13] Aline B. Saarinen, The Proud Possessors—The lives, times and tastes of some adventurous American art collectors (New York: Random House, 1958) ‘Appassionata of the Avant-Garde—Peggy Guggenheim’, 326-343, 337. The comment on Guggenheim’s taste was made by Clement Greenberg.

[14] Eric Fernie, ed., Art History and Its Methods—A Critical Anthology (1995; London: Routledge, 1996).

[15] See Chapter One ‘About Canons and Culture Wars’ in Griselda Pollock, Differencing the Canon—Feminist Desire and the Writing of Art’s Histories (London: Routledge, 1999), 3-21.

[16] Elena Calas and Nicholas Calas, The Peggy Guggenheim Collection (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1966); Lucy Flint (text) and Thomas M. Messer (selection), Handbook: The Peggy Guggenheim Collection (New York: Harry N. Abrams; New York: SRGF, 1983); Angelica Zander Rudenstine, The Peggy Guggenheim Collection, Venice (New York: Harry N. Abrams; New York: SRGF, 1985); SRGF, Art of This Century: The Guggenheim Museum and Its Collection (New York: Guggenheim Museum Publications, 1993); Karole P.B. Vail, Peggy Guggenheim: A Celebration (New York: Guggenheim Museum Publications, 1998).

[17] See Arts Council of Great Britain, The Peggy Guggenheim Collection, 2nd edition (London: Arts Council of Great Britain, 1965) for the exhibition at Tate Gallery, London 31 December 1964-7 March 1965.

[18] Elaine Showalter, ‘Fade to Greige’, London Review of Books, 23:1 (cover date 14 January 2001) ( checked 7 March 2001)

[19] Melvin Lader, Peggy Guggenheim’s Art of the Century: The Surrealist Milieu and the American Avant-Garde 1942-1947 (Ann Arbor, Michigan: University Microfilms, 1981) and ‘Howard Putzel—Proponent of Surrealism and Early Abstract Expressionism in America’, Arts 56:7 (March 1982), 85-96.

[20] Ann Douglas, The Feminization of American Culture (New York: Alfred A Kopf Inc., 1977; London: Papermac-Macmillan, 1996); Wanda M. Corn, ed., Cultural Leadership in America: Art Matronage and Patronage (Boston: Gardner Museum, 1998); Kathleen D. McCarthy, Women’s Culture—American Philanthropy and Art, 1830-1930 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991); Steven Watson, Strange Bedfellows—The First American Avant-Garde (New York: Abbeville Press, 1991). Shari Benstock, Women of the Left Bank: Paris 1900-1940 (University of Texas Press, 1986; London: Virago, 1994).

[21] Ferris Olin, ‘Consuming Passions—women art collectors and cultural politics in the United States 1945-95’, Rutgers University, New Jersey (1998); Deidre Robson, Prestige, Profit and Pleasure: The Market for Modern Art in New York in the 1940s and 1950s (New York: Garland, 1994).

[22] Peter Watson, From Manet to Manhattan: The Rise of the Modern Art Market (London: Vintage-Random House, 1993), xvii

[23] Saarinen, The Proud Possessors, 326.

[24] Charlotte Gere and Marina Vaizey, Great Women Collectors (London: Philip Wilson Publishers, 1999) 196; Marina Vaizey, “Rich Pickings,” The Guardian Weekend 2 October 1999: 76-78.

[25] Edwin Hoyt Jnr, The Guggenheims and the American Dream (New York: Funk and Wagnalls, 1967); John H. Davis, The Guggenheims: An American Epic (New York: William Morrow and Company Inc., 1978). The first biography of the family was written prior to Peggy Guggenheim’s decision to open an art gallery. Harvey O’Conner, The Guggenheims: The Making of an American Dynasty (New York; Covici Friede, 1937).

[26] Stephen Birmingham, “Our Crowd”: The Great Jewish Families of New York (New York: Harper and Row, 1967); Kate Simon, Fifth Avenue: A Very Social History (New York: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1978).

[27] Laurence Tacou-Rumney, Peggy Guggenheim: A Collector’s Album (Paris and New York; Flammarion, 1996); Vail, Peggy Guggenheim. Anton Gill, interview with Lisa Rull 5 December 2000.

[28] William Boyd, Nat Tate: An American Artist 1928-1960 (London: 21 Publishing Ltd, 1998), 48

[29] Thomas Krens, ‘The Genesis of a Museum: A History of the Guggenheim’, in SRGF, Art of This Century, 7-38, 7-8

[30] Jennifer Blessing, ‘Peggy’s Surreal Playground’ in SRGF, Art of This Century, 180-216, 181

[31] Davis, The Guggenheims, 326, 347

[32] Material on Rebay is drawn from Krens, o cit., 7-38, 7-8.

[33] Norbert Elias (translated by Edmund Jephcott with some notes and corrections by the author), The Civilising Process: Sociogenetic and Psychogenetic Investigations (1939; Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 2000). Revised edition edited by Eric Dunning, Johan GoudMoilom, and Stephen Mennell, 6

[34] Jacob Katz, “German Culture and the Jews” in Jehuda Reinharz / Walter Schatzberg (editors), The Jewish Response to German Culture: From the Enlightenment to the Second World War (Hanover and London: Clark University by the University Press of New England, 1985) 85-99, 86

[35] O’Conner, o cit., 432

[36] T.J.Jackson Lears, No Place of Grace: Antimodernism and the Transformation of American Culture 1880-1920 (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1983, reprint 1994), 190

[37] Lawrence W. Levine, Highbrow / Lowbrow: The Emergence of Cultural Hierarchy in America (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1988). See Chapter Two “The Sacralization of Culture” 85-168, especially 146-155

[38] For the term ‘our crowd’ see Birmingham, op cit. On nativism, immigration, and assimilation, see for example, Roger Daniels, Coming to America: A History of Immigration and Ethnicity in American Life (1990; New York: Harper Perennial paperback, 1991) Chapter 10, “The Triumph of Nativism”, 265-284. The quotation on “mass migration” comes from Moses Richin, The Promised City: New York’s Jews, 1870-1914 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1962), 95.

[39] Alan Trachtenberg, The Incorporation of America: Culture and Society in the Gilded Age (New York: Hill and Wang, 1982) 144

[40] Davis, ‘The Genesis of a Museum’, 43

[41] Brian Cheyette, Constructions of ‘the Jew’ in English Literature and Society: Racial Representations 1875-1945 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993). Cheyette adopts the term ‘semitic discourse’ rather than the more familiar ‘anti-Semitic’ in order to include reference to “the protean instability of ‘the Jew’ as a signifier”, 8.

[42] Cheyette, Constructions of ‘the Jew’, 269

[43] See John Henry Raleigh, Matthew Arnold and American Culture (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1957).

[44] Cheyette, Constructions of ‘the Jew’, 5.

[45] Cheyette, Constructions of ‘the Jew’, 18.

[46] John Murray Cuddihy, The Ordeal of Civility: Freud, Marx, Levi-Strauss, and the Jewish Struggle with Modernity (New York: Basic Books, 1974) 141 quoting Karl Marx, The Poverty of Philosophy (New York: International Publishers, 1963) 49, 51. Emphasis and inset remark made by Cuddihy.

Finding Fathers: Thomas Jefferson, Republicanism and the Politics of Patrimony in Gore Vidal’s Burr

Anthony Hutchinson
© Anthony Hutchinson. All Rights Reserved

Gore Vidal’s novel Burr is narrated by Charles Schuyler, a young journalist in 1830s New York who has been assigned the task of procuring politically sensitive information from an ageing Aaron Burr. Like most of the other characters in the novel Burr is a real historical figure. Once regarded as a ‘founding father’, Burr was a hero of the War of Independence who went on to help establish the political machine that became Tammany Hall. By 1800 he had become a powerful enough figure in the Republican Party to tie with Jefferson in the Presidential election of that year. In 1804, however, Burr’s reputation took a turn for the worse. It was in that year that—whilst still Jefferson’s Vice-President—he killed Alexander Hamilton in the most famous duel of the era. Furthermore between 1805 and 1807 Burr was accused of involvement in a filibustering attempt to invade Mexico, detach the western states from the union and create an empire in the newly occupied territories with himself at its head. This image of a North American Bonaparte determined to break up the union has, at least in the eyes of historians, been a potent and enduring one.

Although often adding color to narrative accounts of the early national period, in the realm of American intellectual history Burr is a somewhat more marginal figure. US historians’ recovery of a ‘republican’ ideology of the revolutionary and early national period in the late 1960s and throughout the 1970s, for instance, adds little to our understanding of this figure. In contrast to the Lockean emphasis on negative liberty and the autonomy of the private sphere such historians identified an ideology that valorised the public sphere and articulated a positive sense of liberty associated with participation in civic affairs. The health of the public sphere was premised on the willingness of citizens to demonstrate their ‘virtue’ by subordinating private interests to a higher notion of the public good. Only a virtuous citizenry—whose virtue and autonomy were assured by their status as property-holders and associated freedom from the economy—could be sufficiently ‘disinterested’ in political matters to maintain the moral rectitude of the republic and resist the temptations of empire.[1] The ‘self-interested’, neo-imperial actions of Burr would thus seem to qualify him as the republican statesman’s ‘other’. Having said this in the subsequent counter-offensive which aimed to restore Lockean texts to their central position within the canon of American political thought Burr is also nowhere to be found.[2]

Thomas Jefferson was a crucial figure within this debate as both sides were eager to appropriate his political and intellectual legacy. Accordingly it is to the politics of Jefferson—both in theory and practice—as well as its contested legacy that this study will turn. By focusing as much on Jefferson as it does, Burr can be read as a contribution to this debate and Vidal himself as an insightful intellectual historian. It is not Vidal’s intention primarily to affirm or resurrect the soiled reputation of a maligned historical figure; it is rather to imagine how a cynical, political animal like Burr might have reflected on the the first few decades of the American republic. Aaron Burr, in this way, also offers a fascinating prism through which to view the historical personage of Thomas Jefferson.

Even more interestingly Vidal situates Burr’s assessment of Jefferson in the radically different context of the 1830s. The insight afforded via this retrospective narrative strategy is crucial to the way in which Burr’s views come to engage with the broader themes I am concerned with. The acute sense of historical transition conveyed in Burr is skilfully achieved via several narrative devices. The overarching narrative is set against the backdrop of Andrew Jackson’s presidency (1828-1836). More specifically it depicts the events leading to the succession of Jackson’s Vice-President Martin Van Buren in 1836, the first American President we are reminded—lest we forget the symbolism of the novel’s architecture—to be born in the post-colonial era.

In the opening scenes of the novel Schuyler quickly becomes aware that he is in pursuit of a figure now widely regarded as a traitor to the union. This hostility is compounded, moreover, with the notoriety Burr has acquired as the ‘slayer’ of a ‘founding father’ whose ideological stock has risen considerably with the emergence of a society organised around an increasingly commercial market economy. Between Schuyler’s narrative and the narrative of Burr’s political career—recalled via his own memoirs and conversations held with Schuyler—we are able to chart this very process.

By the 1830s the United States is seen to have realised the Hamiltonian vision of an expansionist republic supported by those modern economic principles that aroused the suspicions of the old Republican opposition during the first Federalist administrations. Furthermore, Burr’s commentary on the first Republican administrations from 1800 onwards clearly shows the extent to which—once these structures were in place—Jefferson could not dismantle the whole edifice of the ‘treasuro-bankites’.[3] Equally interesting, however, is the way in which this is in tension with certain democratic developments of the Jacksonian era that bear a trace of the Jeffersonian tradition. Most prominent amongst these are Jackson’s hostility to the idea of a National Bank, appeals to states’ rights and the anti-élitist character of the era’s populist political rhetoric.

The Jacksonian Democrats perceived themselves to be at the vanguard of a de-centralising movement that would ultimately place power back into the hands of the people. But what type of power: economic or political? And if the appeals were to Jefferson’s principles then which Jefferson, the liberal forward-looking commercial farmer or the classical republican yeoman? The formal structure of Burr foregrounds this notion of political legacy as it manifests itself in a more recognisably modern social context. What was the legacy the founding fathers wished to leave to their descendants and how might they have wished them to interpret it? And what was the interpretation of that legacy by those descendants in the new social world? Although the United States was still a pre-dominantly rural society in the 1830s, it was nonetheless a society in transformation. Schuyler’s New York City, for instance, is beginning its march towards the twentieth century. Burr relays how Manhattan Island is about to be occupied by its first commercial buildings and new penny papers are appearing ‘…that make a fortune by each day giving the public some atrocious novelty’.[4] It is a city in political turmoil where masses congregate; abolitionists trigger riots; and anti-Catholic diatribes lambast the new ‘papist’ immigrants as a threat to American civilisation. These were circumstances that could not possibly be foreseen by the constitution-makers for whom mass meetings were a cause for alarm; slavery an accepted (if somewhat troubling) component of the economy; and ‘liberty of conscience’ a cornerstone of the American moral universe. By the 1830s new patterns were beginning to emerge and the sense of a gap between past and future they prompted explains the narrative complexity of Vidal’s novel.

Some of these new patterns evident in Burr intersect, of course, with those traced by the intellectual historians of liberalism and republicanism referred to earlier. There is an important sense, however, in which Vidal’s novel avoids some of the drawbacks inherent in this debate. One of the blind spots in this debate has been its inability to perceive the extent to which both republicanism and, more obviously, liberalism are ex post facto concepts. Despite having provided us with trenchant understandings of how Lockean and classical republican concepts entered the mainstream of American political thought, both sides in the dispute have tended to dichotomise these respective theories. The impression left is of the United States as understood unequivocally by its founders as either a modern liberal polity or a civic-humanist republic. This almost certainly downplays the flexibility, or—as Vidal would no doubt argue—the expediency, of the founders’ politics.

The problem is particularly evident, for reasons I will explore, in those instances where the thought of Thomas Jefferson is under consideration. A certain consistency is invariably assumed in the way in which liberal or classical republican ideas shaped Jefferson’s confrontation with modernity. But what is not commonly taken account of is the fact that although Jefferson was himself undoubtedly aware of such phenomena as an expanding economy, commercialisation, property rights, corruption and so forth, he was not aware in the same way as we are retrospectively in the late twentieth century. They may have been striking features of American public life to Jefferson but they were certainly not perceived in the context of the ‘rise of liberal capitalism’ or ‘the end of classical politics’ in the sense we (can only) now understand such developments. Before speaking of the ‘Lockean’ or ‘Machiavellian’ nature of Jefferson’s encounter with modernity, then, we might recall that, in Gordon Wood’s words,

For early Americans there never was a stark dictionary of traditions, liberal or classical republican. None of the historical participants ever had any sense that they had to choose or were choosing between Locke and Machiavelli. The categories of ‘liberalism’ and ‘classical republicanism’ into which the participants in the past presumably must be fitted are the inventions of historians and as such are gross distortions of past reality.[5]

In this sense recent historiography has constructed two Jeffersons from a broad spectrum of ideas that have only subsequently acquired their own respective coherence. The historical novelist, of course, can re-construct the past in the present tense. Within this context the imposition of such conceptual frameworks appears more conspicuous. The self-serving and evasive dimensions of Burr’s narration, moreover, are made explicit in the novel. Accordingly when filtered through Vidal’s narrative Jefferson is no strict adherent to any cohesive body of political thought. Burr notes, rather, how ‘each swift response’, of Jefferson’s, be it as ambassador to France or as President, ‘[is] rich with ambiguities’.[6]

The reader is presented via the focalised voice of Burr, with a radical re-reading of Jefferson’s character and thought as it responds to a number of unfolding political crises and predicaments. Jefferson’s posthumous glory is inexplicable to the elderly Burr who, as the presiding authority in the Senate, witnessed Jefferson’s attempt to ‘subvert the Constitution and shatter the Supreme court’ during the trial of Justice Samuel Chase in 1805. ‘Judge Chase was acquitted’, Burr writes in his memoirs, ‘for the very good reason that there was no true case against him’.[7] Burr regards Jefferson’s purchase of the Louisiana territories as similarly unconstitutional. Furthermore, compounding this apparent deviation from strict ‘constructionist’ republican constitutional principles was the fact that

Jefferson made it plain that he was in no hurry to extend to the 50,000 souls he had just bought any of those freedoms he had once insisted must be enjoyed by all mankind.[8]

This remark is foreshadowed in the novel by an earlier episode recalled in Burr’s memoirs where Jefferson is recorded as speaking favourably of Montesquieu. The principle, however, of true republican government being able to exist only on a small scale espoused by Montesquieu in The Spirit of the Laws is seen by Burr to prompt a drastic change of opinion in Jefferson after the Louisiana Purchase. Perhaps because Burr’s career itself is notable chiefly for the absence of any consistent adherence to a political philosophy, Vidal can portray him as alert to instances of this shortcoming in the views of his contemporaries.

Certainly this ‘ideal’ [republican] form of government is not practical for an empire of the sort Jefferson gave us when he illegally bought Louisiana. …To justify himself Jefferson turned on his old idol [Montesquieu] and attacked him for (favourite and characteristic Jefferson word) ‘heresy’.[9]

Likewise Burr wryly notes the irony of Jefferson’s republican suspicion of executive power throughout the first federalist administrations. ‘By the time Jefferson’s Presidency ended’, he claims, ‘the Executive was more powerful than it had ever been under those two ‘monarchists’, Washington and Adams’.[10] Moreover, it is not only Burr who is shown to make such cynical assessments of Jefferson. We learn, for instance, how ‘[Alexander] Hamilton and Jefferson spent a good deal of time reading each other’s correspondence’. Hamilton has discovered that Jefferson ‘had wrote to advise a Mr Short to invest his money in the bank! In the very bank Jefferson is publicly accusing of being a menace to the republic!’. With regard to his self-cultivated image as a peace-loving, frugal yeoman suspicious of luxury, commerce and the unbridled accumulation of wealth, Hamilton claims Jefferson is ‘as two faced as Janus’. His eagerness for a war in Europe, he adds, is based on the opportunity it allows him for personal enrichment via sales of hemp, cotton and flax. War is, Hamilton quotes Jefferson, ‘helpful to domestic manufacture’. Astutely, Burr goes on to add: ‘I have no idea if any of this were true. The important thing is that Hamilton believed it to be true.’[11]

It is via such means that the novel acquaints the reader with how the tensions in Jefferson’s commitment to republican principles were first received. These are the very tensions that persist in historiographical debates today but are perceived, with hindsight, within the context of an emerging liberal democracy underpinned by a capitalist economy. The siege mentality of Jefferson and Hamilton becomes more comprehensible, however, if we—following Vidal—realise that this eventual path was far from clear to the protagonists themselves. Jefferson and Hamilton believed that at stake in their quarrel was nothing less than the survival of the republic. Whether their respective philosophies were informed by Lockean or Machiavellian values was neither here nor there: they embraced or espoused such values as and when the occasion demanded. As Lance Banning has written in an attempt to bring his fellow historians around to this fact: ‘Logically, it may be inconsistent to be simultaneously liberal and classical. Historically, it was not.’[12]

No era in American history perhaps illustrates Banning’s distinction with greater clarity than the period in the early nineteenth century associated with the rise of Andrew Jackson. Jackson came to power in 1828 with Jefferson’s funeral eulogies still ringing in American ears. In many ways the election of that year re-enacted the bitterly partisan battle of 1800. The spectre of monopoly, in the form of a second National Bank, for instance, was once more the object of fiery political rhetoric. Was the United States, the Jacksonians asked, as Jefferson had in 1800, to be governed by the few or the many, the minority or the majority, the aristocracy or the people? What remained unaddressed was whether such appeals to the people’s sovereign will undermined the republican order championed by the Founding Fathers.

Public reaction to Jefferson’s death in 1826 helped sweep the Democratic Republicans to victory in 1828, tributes to the sage of Monticello giving added resonance to Jackson’s professed commitment to ‘repeat [ Jefferson’s ] revolution of 1800’.[13] The reaction to the death of Aaron Burr ten years later was somewhat different. On Burr’s death, it was said, ‘decency congratulated itself that a nuisance was removed, and good men were glad that God had seen fit to deliver society from the contaminating contact of a festering mass of moral putrefaction’.[14]

Vidal is only too aware of the ironies of this characterisation of Burr given the political developments of the 1830s. Such is Burr’s infamy at this historical juncture, the reader learns, that the establishment of any connection, particularly a political connection, past or present, with the disgraced former Vice-President could seriously check the ambitions of any aspiring politician. With this effect in mind, Charles Schuyler’s employer at the Evening Post, William Leggett, attempts to ruin Vice-President Martin Van Buren’s chances of succeeding Jackson by unmasking him as Burr’s illegitimate son.

Leggett claims to be acting in the name of democracy, as a supporter of Jackson, whose reforms, he believes, will be reversed should Van Buren attain office. Revealing Burr as Van Buren’s biological father, however, is intended by Leggett only as a preliminary strike which will help establish what he perceives to be a more pernicious figurative form of paternity. Burr, he wishes to show, can also be regarded as Van Buren’s political father. ‘Americans are a moral people,’ Leggett tells Schuyler, ‘but even more damaging than his bastardy is his political connection with Burr, particularly in recent years. If we can prove dark plots, secret meetings, unholy combinations—then, by Heaven, Van Buren will not be chosen to succeed General Jackson.’[15] This exchange in the novel gives an early signal of Vidal’s interest in the politics of patrimony, in this case by excavating a long-forgotten rumour ultimately lost to history as a result of its failure to ignite a full-blown political scandal. The figurative pull of such genealogical themes is a powerful one within American political culture. If it has been said of Jefferson that ‘parties do not take sides for or against him, but contend, like children, as to their legitimate descent’,[16] then what, Vidal appears to be asking, might it mean if a whole generation of American politicians could be construed as, in some sense, the ‘heirs’ of Aaron Burr?

The point Vidal wishes to extrapolate from the Burr-Van Buren rumour is twofold: who are the Founding Fathers and who are their legitimate heirs? Burr is at pains to stress how virtually every senior politician of the 1830s—including Andrew Jackson, Martin Van Buren and Henry Clay—were, at the very least, tacit supporters of Burr during his Mexican misadventure. William Leggett’s attempts to discredit the Vice-President by raising the spectre of Burr are motivated by a refusal to acknowledge Van Buren as the legitimate heir to Andrew Jackson. Vidal, however, ironises Leggett’s efforts in those sections of Burr’s memoirs which recall Jackson’s own fierce loyalty to Burr in his several hours of need. Here for instance is Burr’s recollection of Jackson’s response to the Hamilton duel:

‘Never read such a damn lot of nonsense as the press has been writing!All that hypocritical caterwauling for that Creole bastard who fought you of his own free will, just like a gentleman which he wasn’t, if you’ll forgive me, Colonel!….He was the worse man in this union, as you, Sir, are the best’.[17]

The irony thickens, furthermore, when Burr records how the great champion of the ‘common man’ was once himself the object of public derision in the aftermath of the Burr conspiracy trial:

A few days later Jackson was nearly mobbed when he addressed an anti-Burr crowd….But he held his ground and with many an oath declared that I was the victim of political persecution….I fear—hard as it is to believe now—that the plebs actually laughed at their future idol Andrew Jackson. I at least blessed him for the friend he was.[18]

What then are we to make of such affiliations and their bearing on any understanding of the American political tradition? What does it mean when Vidal has Aaron Bur—a figure supposedly antithetical to that tradition—announce: ‘it has been a rule with me to measure people by what they think of Andrew Jackson. Anyone who does not appreciate that frank and ardent spirit is an enemy to what is best in our American breed—by the Eternal!’?[19] did a man perceived by Jefferson himself as a grave threat to the republic acquire support from Andrew Jackson, later promoted as Jefferson’s supposed political heir? Furthermore, how does Burr come to admire the supposed inheritor of the Jeffersonian political tradition? Has the imperialist, we might ask, come to embrace the republic or has the republic, without realising it, always secretly embraced the imperialist? These are intriguing questions which finally bring us back to the issues of commerce and expansion, democracy and empire given a fresh impetus by the republican turn in early American historiography.

In Burr, it might be said, we find a discernible slippage between rhetoric and reality, word and deed, theory and practice in the early republic: a gap prompted by the confrontation between republican discourse and an emerging capitalist economy. For Vidal this gap gave many of the ‘republican’ pronouncements of the founding generation of American statesmen a contradictory flavour. Aaron Burr, Vidal’s novel makes clear, was one of the few members of that generation who consistently refused to countenance the republican claims of the American Revolution. Burr’s eventual fate, it is implied, is tied to his contempt for such idealistic claims and his refusal to harness new economic impulses and developments to the spirit of 1776, 1800, 1828 or any other republican meridian. Jefferson and Jackson, on the other hand, are depicted as careful to acknowledge the cultural power and importance of such demands, so re-assuring Americans by connecting past to future, modernity to tradition.

Vidal’s Burr views his own career retrospectively as a premature attempt to embrace new realities which was doomed precisely because of its failure to provide a commensurate (and to Burr no doubt a spurious) political discourse. His inability to legitimate his actions within an acceptable republican rationale resulted in marginalisation and ignominy. By contrast, for Vidal, Jefferson and Jackson deftly circumvented this problem by extending the conceptual territory covered by the term. They knew that although liberalism—the philosophy best suited to the demands of a broadening capitalist economy—appealed to the heads of Americans, republicanism still appealed to their hearts. It is the complex set of contradictions involved in this harmonising strategy, however, that makes the politics of these figures so difficult to compartmentalise. In this vein Vidal has a cynical Burr articulate the persuasiveness and sphinx-like qualities of Jefferson in the following passage:

It is amazing how beguilingly [Jefferson] could present [his] contradictory vision. But then in all his words if not deeds Jefferson was so beautifully human, so eminently vague, so entirely dishonest but not in any meretricious way. Rather it was a passionate form of self-delusion that rendered Jefferson as president and as man (not to mention as writer of tangled sentences and lunatic metaphors) confusing even to his admirers…when Jefferson saw that he could not create the Arcadian society he wanted, he settled with suspicious ease for the Hamiltonian order…he was the most successful empire-builder of our century succeeding where Bonaparte failed. But then Bonaparte was always candid when it came to motive and Jefferson was always dishonest. In the end,candour failed; dishonesty prevailed. I dare not preach a sermon on that text.[20]

Jefferson’s self-deception was generated by the co-existence of a republican philosophy which associated ‘virtue’ with participation in government alongside a laissez faire economy where it was transplanted into the social sphere and became associated with participation in society. Having never subscribed to any notion of ‘virtue’, in his public or private life, Aaron Burr consequently remained untroubled by this paradox. With virtue banished from the public sphere, the imperial adventurism and political opportunism of a later generation of Americans gives Burr’s actions, in Vidal’s representation, something of a prophetic quality. ‘Ahead of the times! That should be on his tombstone’, exclaims one character in Vidal’s novel, ‘Aaron Burr always saw the future first. Yet never profited by it’.[21] of the several fascinating sub-plots within Burr features the ageing ‘embryo Caesar’ gambling, one last time, on America’s deviation from its republican heritage. In attempting to buy land in Texas to be settled by German immigrants, Burr’s prospective investment turns on the United States ultimately annexing the territory from Mexico. He dies, however, before the onset of the Mexican War that would have made his investment good by extending US territories beyond Texas to the Pacific Coast.

Vidal’s focus on this prophetic dimension of Burr’s career—his emphasis on the secret imperial impulse that lurks behind the façade of agrarian republican innocence—is a useful corrective to the relatively uncritical interpretations of early American political thought often evident in the debates on republicanism. Burr not only foregrounds some of the destructive effects and legacies of the aggressive and acquisitive individualism unleashed by modern liberalism but also questions the tenability of reading ‘republicanism’ as a central guiding ethos in the early national period. Yet Vidal is, also, obviously taken with the idea of republicanism as a path not chosen, as a set of ideas to be invoked against the imperialism and the centralisation of power characteristic of the twentieth century American state.

This sentiment appears more explicit in an afterword where the author distances himself from Burr’s view of early American history. ‘All in all’, Vidal admits, ‘I think rather more highly of Jefferson than Burr does; on the other hand, Burr’s passion for Jackson is not shared by me.’[22] This betrays Vidal’s sympathy for a figure who, unlike Jackson, understood virtue in still broadly classical terms and, however much in self-deception, sought to keep the United States’ republican robe unsoiled by imperialism and the base imperatives of commerce. There was, after all, none of the US military imperialism during Jefferson’s period in office which Vidal believes has ultimately led in the twentieth century to a tax devouring military-industrial leviathan and global American ‘empire’ premised on economic power. With regard to this latter development, however, Burr himself appears less convinced in Vidal’s novel. ‘I do think that we are the first empire in history’, he recalls Jefferson remarking after the Louisiana purchase, ‘to buy its territory rather than to conquer it.’[23]

University of Nottingham


[1] The most notable amongst these works were Gordon Wood, The Creation of the American Republic 1776-1787 (Chapel Hill, N.C.: University of North Carolina Press, 1969) and J.G.A. Pocock, The Machiavellian Moment: Florentine Political Thought and the Atlantic Republican Tradition, (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1975).

[2] For a statement of the ‘liberal’ interepretation see the essays collected in Joyce Appleby, Liberalism and Republicanism in the Historical Imagination, (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1992).

[3] ‘This cumbersome phrase’, Burr explains in the novel, ‘was of Jefferson’s coinage’, Burr, p.242.

[4] Burr, 522.

[5] ‘Hellfire Politics’, a review of John Patrick Diggins’ The Lost Soul of American Politics, Gordon Wood, The New York Review of Books, February 28, 1985, 30.

[6] Burr, 431.

[7] Burr, 404 -5.

[8] Burr, 342 –3.

[9] Burr, 215.

[10] Burr, 268.

[11] Burr, 224.

[12] Lance Banning, ‘Jeffersonian Ideology Revisited: Liberal and Classical Ideas in the New American Republic’, The William and Mary Quarterly, Jan 1986, 43: 1, 12.

[13] Quoted in Merrill D. Peterson, The Jefferson Image in the American Mind (New York: Oxford University Press, 1960), 72.

[14] Quoted in Peterson, 144.

[15] Burr, 28.

[16] Quoted in Peterson, 29.

[17] Burr, 416.

[18] Burr, 483-84.

[19] Burr, 426.

[20] Burr, 218.

[21] Burr, 440-41.

[22] Burr, 576.

[23] Burr, 430.